The Gospel in a Secular World, Part 6|
by Frank DeSiano, CSP
We have been reviewing the emergence of “secularity” for several issues now, not the secularity of “separation of church and state,” but the secularity of “we can define our lives pretty well without God.” Democracies across the Western world have seen shifts in moral positions that arose from faith, particularly in areas of gender and marriage. The wider culture no longer assumes what was long assumed about marriage and sexual activity. Now, it seems, parts of the wider culture no longer assume what was long assumed about God.
To be sure, the United States includes one of the higher proportions of believers in developed countries, and certainly we have a very high percentage, comparatively speaking, of those who actually attend Church among developed countries. Nevertheless, the numbers of people who mark “none” under religious preference are on the rise, as is a wide restlessness of U.S. citizens in general when it comes to loyalty to a particular church.
Charles Taylor, whose monumental book A Secular Age serves as a basic reference for the emergency of secularity, sees the issue as fairly complex. It’s not just secularists arrayed against believers, even though this is often portrayed as our basic dilemma by certain segments of the media. Rather, there are elements of possible openness on each side.
In other words, secularists can be of two kinds—those closed to any notion of transcendence, and those who admit its possibility. One can view the world in basically mechanical and causal terms, as a closed system of matter. Or one can view the world with scientific eyes, but nevertheless see patterns of mystery and direction within and beyond the world.
Similarly, believers can look upon the world as primarily knowable only through belief, with scads of skepticism about any scientific propositions that seem to butt against how they view faith. The classical battles between “evolution” and “the Bible” which media often returns to, as if the Scopes trail never ended, show this kind of closed faith. But faith can likewise be seen as open to autonomous structures of science, a state separate from established religion, the economy, and the flow of information, all of which characterize modernity.
If these lines are hard to see in our own experience, we can perhaps see them more clearly in the conflicts within Islam.
If we view our task as evangelizers as primarily protecting people from the harshness of modernity, then we have to do something like circling the wagons. If we view our task as evangelizers as primarily exploring how modernity is open to faith, and vice versa, then we have a long process ahead of us—long, but exciting. Our Catholic tradition of finding a convergence of all truth in the one Truth that is God—from a scholasticism like Thomas to science and economics departments in Catholic universities—would seem to push us toward critically accepting modernity, knowing, very well, that a modernity without transcendence, without faith, might look pretty empty indeed.